By Dave Gilchrist
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What makes art?

This article is over 2 years, 6 months old
Dave Gilchrist reviews John Molyneux's The Dialectics of Art

Michelango’s Creation of Adam, part of the Sistine Chapel. Who defines what makes great art? (Photo: Wiki/Creative Commons)

John Molyneux has opened up a debate on what art is with his most recent book, The Dialectics of Art. There is a lot to recommend in his book, particularly his reviews of different works of art. There are also I think some ideas that need further examination.

In the era of disaster capitalism why talk about art at all? Engagement with the arts before pandemic was high in Britain. In 2019, 76 percent of people claimed to have participated in some art activity, such as visiting a gallery, over the previous year. 61 percent had done so three or more times. In the most deprived areas 59 percent of people had engaged with the arts.

Socialists have a long and rich tradition of thinking about art. Historically each upsurge of struggle, from mass strikes to anti-colonial movements, has thrown up a huge new engagement in the arts. The Russian revolution – the first time workers took power – unleashed a massive wave of creativity that is still felt in artistic practice today.

The Dialectics of Art is therefore to be welcomed. It opens up a discussion about art in a time of pandemic where our lives can feel reduced as we have not been able to go to art galleries, theatres or the cinema. The fallout from the economic crisis means local councils are often closing libraries and art facilities as budgets are slashed.

Molyneux does well to address some of the questions we have as we watch a film, go to a gallery or defend our local art centre. However I have some points of disagreement in some important respects. In the space available to me I can only suggest the outline of some of these.

How does art arise?

Molyneux provides a vivid illustration of how art has been different in different societies. He describes very well the political and social influences on works such as those of Michelangelo, and how they shaped the final outcomes. For example he tells us how the work of Mondrian – with its regular forms and straight lines – is only possible in societies with cities where these forms dominate.

He says that art does not arise in the base of capitalist society, which refers to the more fundamental features in society. This includes the relationship between employer and employee, working conditions, how work is broken down into smaller jobs, and property relations  – who owns factories and companies. Molyneux argues art arises in the superstructure of capitalist society, where things like culture, institutions, political power structures, and the state are to be found. For Marxists it is what is happening in the base that determines what can happen in the superstructure.

In searching for a definition of art, Molyneux looks for a common factor and finds it in that all art is produced by human labour. He answers the question of “What is Art?” by claiming that art is the product of unalienated labour, and that when this labour combines form and content, it is art. Art then for Molneux is a separate sphere of production in society.

Unalienated labour?

In capitalist production, the coercion of workers and lack of control over production is crucial. However according to Molyneux, artists are not coerced to work as artists. They, he argues, control their own petty means of production such paintbrushes, canvas and paint. Thus they are able to be creative.

The form of labour is however only one aspect of the definition of art, writes Molyneux. The second factor is that “the content and meaning is totally bound up in the form.”

The book focuses on aspects of those works considered great, or artists that have been accepted into the art and the wider establishment. Molyneux however is everywhere concerned with grading works, taking about “great art”, “second or third rate art”, “high art” and “low art”. Here he seems to accept ideas about “the culture industry” and its predisposition towards making “low grade culture for the masses”.

His book is principally about one form of visual art. However he does try to generalise the core theories of the book across all forms of art.

Molyneux introduced these ideas in a debate 1999 in International Socialism Journal. In a reply to Molyenux, former Socialist Worker editor Chris Harman found his ideas about alienation unconvincing. One reason was that they did not answer the question of how to judge art. In Dialectics of Art, Molyneux adds that the judgement of art is to be made on the various categories used in bourgeois art. This includes criticism, beauty and unity – but, Molyneux argues, with the addition of the Marxist notion of how well it exposes the social relations of that society.

I am not convinced by Molyneux’s concept of unalienated labour. The modern workplace can still look like the coercive workplace described by Karl Marx. Just think of Amazon’s “fulfilment centres.” As a primary school teacher I loved my job in the main. The alienation came from the increasing pressure from government and management to follow prescriptive forms of teaching. But there were great days when you thought, “they are paying me for this!” Our work was not coerced, repetitive or boring but nevertheless was alienated.

Molyneux admits that he knows that artists are alienated in general, but he is only applying this concept to their artistic labour. He cites the elements of control and ownership of the petty means of production.

This argument about where creativity comes from breaks down completely when other art forms are considered. Actors in the main work for wages and do not own the petty means of production. They do not, in the main, control the product that they help create. They frequently do creative work simply to get paid, and they can be coerced into certain things against their will – think of women actors pressured into appearing naked in scenes. Yet they collectively produce works of art.

Chris Harman wrote, “In fact, all artists suffer from a profound version of alienation. Art, like language, cannot exist for the individual alone. The individual painter, musician, filmmaker or whatnot is attempting to communicate something to other people. But the means by which artists can communicate are not in their own hands in a class society. They belong to those who own the other means of production, the members of the ruling class. Even when artists do not have to sell their labour power in order to live, they have to sell its products in order to be able to communicate… Alienation is an inescapable feature of the artistic condition.”

Form and content

The second point Molyneux raises is that in his view, the definition of art is that form defines the content. Nicola Field in her review of the book in International Socialism put it like this, “The meaning contained in a poem lies in its choice and form of words – how they are arranged on the page.” If this were true, then the production of the Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui that I saw at the National Theatre in London in English was trying to express different things to than the one I saw in the Berliner Ensemble in German. In fact emphasis and contemporary references may have been different but the points that Bertolt Brecht wanted to communicate were maintained.

The translated version had the intervention of another artist – a translator – to convey the intentions of Brecht in a language with different speech patterns and sounds.

The relationship of form and content is one where the form is adapted to the content. The form is only the form of the content, to quote Lukacs. It is expressed well in the Bauhaus art studio slogan that “form follows function.”

This questions the concept that an artwork is produced solely by the artist. This is not true in the theatre. As prolific theatre director Peter Brook put it, “A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

There are two aspects to this, the creativity of the actor but also the creativity of the audience – what they bring to it, how they interpret and understand it. This is true for all art. It only exists as an exchange between artist and audience.

Radical theatre director Richard Shechner described this in his work Performance Theory. There are many layers to a performance that may start with a script, but the culmination of the process is the performance. There is a “gathering phase” where all the people that will make up the performance come together. This includes the actors, the bar staff, the audience, costumes and so on. Then arises the question of what forms of interaction take place in the theatre, depending on its social location.

The way the audience interacts with the performance varies according to our individual experiences – including leaving the theatre, getting the tube home and discussing the play. So here the art work is situated in an entire social environment which comes together to create the unique experience. The art is not finished when the playwright stops typing. Crucially, the audience is part of the art. Art is a social and public activity, and its meanings depend on the thought and activity of a community.

Molyneux’s propositions have other implications. Marx and Engels did not systemise an aesthetic and so there are many problems in doing so. Art historian Max Raphael argued that there was a contemplative viewpoint in Marx from his early period. He argued he did not take the same attitude towards art as he did towards politics and economics. Molyneux’s book tends towards this contemplative view. As Molyneux stated when launching the book at Bookmarks Bookshop, analysing art is very interesting but the most important thing is to look at it. It would seem that Marxism’s function here is to provide an alternative discourse to the conventional one.

An interventionist view on art

Socialists should have an interventionist view of their relationship to art. It is a mistake to see Leon Trotsky’s dictum that art has its own rules as meaning that socialists should stand back and look at art, but leave the artists to get on with it. Trotsky was speaking in the early 1920s, aware of the rising Stalinist bureaucracy. Socialists should, as the early Communist parties did, intervene in art by participating, becoming artists and encourage the participation of workers in art events.

This was what was done in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in Britain and elsewhere, when millions of ordinary people were encouraged to participate and go to art events of all kinds. This expansion of art relies on the level of struggle in society. The Black Lives Matter movement is bound to produce new works of art, as is the movement against climate chaos. It is struggle that produces new art as it produces new ideas about how we can live. Contemporary struggles will bring new artists with new ideas to the fore.

Social being determines consciousness. The artist living in an alienated society can only break free from that domination in the same sense that all workers do. The ideas in any society are the ideas of the ruling class, but the liberation of the working class is the act of the working class itself. In this contradiction, the worker is forced to fight. In the process they are able to understand the oppression of society and struggle to overcome it. The artist through a slower and less direct process – but one in which the struggles of the oppressed and exploited are visible – struggles for the expression of the world as they see it. In other words, they fight for the ability to communicate their vision. In this battle they are tormented by all the contradictions of class society, and express them in artistic terms.

In the words of Aleksandr Voronsky – the Russian art theorist purged by Stalin – art is “the cognition of life.”  It is therefore a form of thinking about the world in which the symbols and signs of culture are wielded in the expression of feelings, emotion and thoughts. It proceeds through trial and error, attempting to understand or illustrate ideas coming closer to that reality. Lenin argued “Cognition is the eternal, endless approximation of thought to the object.”

As Voronsky put it, “Science cognises life with the help of concepts, art with the aid of images in the form of living, sensual contemplation.”

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